Crashing Ford Field: Luke Bryan’s long road to the top
Luke Bryan headlines Ford Field on Friday, the final date on the biggest tour of his career. But it won’t be the first time he’s played the Detroit Lions’ home. Bryan was on the bill when Kenny Chesney blew out Ford Field in August 2008, on the bottom of a lineup that also featured Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes and Gary Allan.
At the time, Bryan was a Nashville up-and-comer with dreams of the big time. His debut album, “I’ll Stay Me,” was released a year earlier, and few realized Bryan was at the precipice of what would become one of country music’s biggest success stories of the decade.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” says Bryan, on the phone earlier this month from a San Diego-bound tour bus. “Certainly not an overnight deal, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve built my career the good old-fashioned way, getting out there and earning it every step of the way.”
Indeed, Bryan’s history in Detroit is emblematic of his gradual, slow-and-steady climb to the top. He played the Downtown Hoedown in 2007 and again in 2009, and opened concerts for Dierks Bentley (2008) and Darius Rucker (2009) before landing his first headlining show in the market in 2010 at the Emerald Theatre in Mount Clemens.
From there, he opened for Tim McGraw in 2011 and co-headlined a show with Jason Aldean in 2012, before anchoring the inaugural Faster Horses festival in 2013. Friday’s concert finds him headlining the area’s largest venue.
“When you’re in a stadium, you sit there, and you can’t physically believe you’re there,” says Bryan, nursing a nasty cold, which he’ll fight through later that night on stage. “It’s the pinnacle of what you can do as a live performer. And the fact that I can sit at home on a Sunday evening and watch a football game and tell my son that, ‘Hey, your dad sold that stadium out,’ it’s one of the most amazing feelings in the world.”
The Georgia native, 39, got a late start on his road to that feeling, moving to Nashville when he was 25 and getting his first taste of country music success at age 30.
“My initial plan was to move out to Nashville when I was 19, and I probably would have packed up and moved back home, because I wouldn’t have been mature enough,” says the two-time Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year winner. “Some people try to put a timeline on your career, saying you need to do such-and-such by such-and-such age, but I’ve never thought about it that way. I’ve just tried to make music that makes people happy, because that’s what makes me happy.”
Bryan went to college and earned his degree in business administration from Georgia Southern University, where he met his bride-to-be, Caroline Boyer (the couple has two boys, ages 7 and 5). After moving to Nashville post-graduation, he landed a songwriting gig and co-wrote songs for Travis Tritt (2004’s “Honky Tonk History”) and Billy Currington (2006’s “Good Directions”) before releasing his first EP, “Luke Bryan EP,” in October 2006.
“I’ll Stay Me” followed in 2007, and his second album, “Doin’ My Thing,” was released in 2009. By 2011’s “Tailgates & Tanlines,” Bryan was a certified hitmaker, and his sound — built around good times, confident swagger and a loose embrace of hip-hop attitude — was solidified on anthems such as “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and “Drunk on You.”
Meanwhile, Bryan became the crown prince of what came to be called “bro-country” with a series of spring break-themed EPs, starting with 2009’s “Spring Break With All My Friends.” Five more would follow in the next six years, and Bryan staged an annual series of spring break concerts in Panama City Beach that drew tens of thousands of revelers every year.
But with his 40th birthday approaching, Bryan waved goodbye to spring break with this year’s “Spring Break... Checkin’ Out.”
“ ‘Spring Break’ was one of the most defining moments of my career, but we understood it was probably time to move on,” says Bryan, who has ideas for other EPs in the pipeline. “It was an emotional situation closing the book on it, but it was a very important part of my career.”
(Bryan isn’t giving up the beach life entirely; in January he’ll stage a series of “Crash My Playa” concerts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, which he calls his “Spring Break Band-Aid.”)
Bryan’s latest album, “Kill the Lights,” was released in August and enjoyed one of the year’s healthiest debuts, selling 320,000 copies its debut week and eclipsing Dr. Dre’s “Compton” at the top of the charts.
The Ford Field show caps off a stellar year for Bryan. He says he may don a Halloween costume for the evening, which could signal the beginning of a new tour routine for the superstar.
“Let’s just say we may try to make a little tradition out of this last-show-of-the-year thing at Ford Field,” he says.
Wrapping up the tour “is a weird sensation, because I would say I’m never excited to end a tour, because I had so much fun on it,” Bryan says. “It’s a surreal emotion. I’m gonna think about all the good memories we’ve had, and we’ll probably shed some tears.
“We’ll certainly be happy that we’ve had an amazing year, but we’ll be upset that we can’t keep it going.”
with Dierks Bentley, Randy Houser and Dustin Lynch
4:30 p.m. Friday